Against the American Revolution

Venuleius of Ius Honorarium has posted a mixture of praise and contempt for Christopher Ferrara’s polemics against “Americanism.” I haven’t read Ferrara’s book, but I can guess what it’s like; after all, in my undergraduate days in the USA I was in the business of quoting Diuturnum Illud and Notre Charge Apostolique to bash the founding principles of that proud republic. Venuleius gives Ferrara qualified praise for slamming John Courtney Murray-style attempts at showing that the American founding principles are the cat’s meow, and ought to be adopted root and branch by Catholic social teaching. But Venuleius argues that Ferrara overstates the evils of the American project:

It’s nothing new for a trad to disparage the American Founding on the basis that folks like Jefferson and Franklin were deists […]; the harder task is proving that the private views of these and other non-Catholic “Founding Fathers” informed the establishment of the U.S. and, more specifically, the U.S. Constitution in such a way that the end result is a country which is, at its core, antithetical to the Catholic Faith. I’m skeptical that this is true.

As a non-Catholic country the US could hardly be expected to be a Catholic confessional state, and, Venuleius argues, if one concedes that there is little in the Constitution which clashes with the Catholic tradition. Rather than being a pure expression of Enlightenment rationalism, he continues, the American Constitution is the expression of political compromise, that does an OK job of providing a certain measure of reasonable order.

The America-is-not-really-so-consistently-Enlightenment-after-all line of argument is one that I’ve encountered before. It often goes along with attempts to show that the American Constitution is not so very different from the sort of mixed government envisioned by St Thomas. I’ve long thought that this line of argument is not very convincing; superficial similarities can mask deep diferences. I’ve just been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I find that he provides me with some good ammunition, by showing with his typical wealth of historical illustration just how wide the gulf really is between pre-modern and modern political order. (I like the irony of using Taylor to support Ferrara; they could scarcely inhabit more widely separated spheres of “Catholic thought”).

Taylor shows how the Enlightenment transformed ancient conceptions of political order — not just at the level of theory, but at the level of what he calls the “social imaginary.” Taylor identifies two related types of pre-modern moral/political order. The first is the conception of “the Law of a people;” a law which the people did not give itself, but which was established in a remote “sacred time” by a quasi super human law giver; a law which constitutes the people as people (p. 163). The second is the one which St. Thomas uses: the notion of a hierarchy of society which corresponds to the hierarchy of the cosmos. In fact, the political hierarchy is part of the cosmic hierarchy. This hierarchy is understood through Platonic or Aristotelian notions of form as something which is itself at work in reality – like the form of an organism – deviations from which turn reality against itself. Thus disorder in the political realm is reflected by disorder in other parts of the cosmos. Taylor refers to Macbeth 2.4, where owls, horses and the even the very sunlight are plunged into disorder by the murder of Duncan.

Now, the key point to see about the pre-modern view of political order as part of cosmic order is to see that the order is not merely instrumental; it is itself the final cause of political life. It’s not just that the hierarchical order of society happens to help people to reach their individual ends, no, as Taylor puts it, “the hierachical differentiation itself is seen as the proper order of things. It was part of the nature or form of society.” (p.164). St. Thomas teaches this again and again, as do Aristotle and Plato before him, but the way in which they most often approach the question makes it easy for people to gloss over just how much this makes them differ from the moderns. Taylor is very good at showing this, so good that he is worth quoting at length:

The modern idealization of order departs radically from this. It is not just that there is no place for a Platonic-type form at work; but connected to this, whatever distribution of functions a society might develop is deemed contingent; it will be justified or not instrumentally; it cannot itself define the good. The basic normative principle is, indeed, that the members of society serve each other’s needs, help each other. In this way, they complement each other. But the particular functional differentiation they need to take on to do this most effectively is endowed with no essential worth. It is adventitious and potentially changeable. In some cases, it may be merely temporary, as with the principle of the ancient polis, that we may be rulers and ruled in turn. In other cases, it requires lifetime specialization, but there is no inherent value in this, and all callings are equal in the sight of God. In one way or the other, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy, or any particular structure of differentiation.

In other words, the basic point of the new normative order was the mutual respect and mutual service of the individuals who make up society. The actual structures were meant to serve these ends, and were judged instrumentally in this light. The difference might be obscured by the fact that the older orders also ensured a kind of mutual service; the clergy prays for the laity, and the laity defend/work for the clergy. But the crucial point is just this division into types in their hierarchical ordering; whereas on the new understanding we start with individuals and their debt of mutual service, and the divisions fall out as they can most effectively discharge this debt.

Thus Plato, in Book II of the Republic, starts out by reasoning from the non-selfsufficiency of the individual to the need for an order of mutual service. But quite rapidly it becomes clear that it is the structure of this order which is the basic point. And the last doubt is removed when we see that this order is meant to stand in analogy and interaction with the normative order in the soul. By contrast, in the modern ideal, the whole point is the mutual respect and service, however achieved. (165).

So this is the key point is that for the older view order is a good in and of itself, but on the newer view order is purely a means to an end. Taylor further notes that the political order comes to be reflected in the souls of the political subjects, and the reflection of that order in the soul is “virtue.” Thus individual perfection, “the highest virtue” is something that the members of the polis receive from the city. Order in the modern view on the other hand,

is directed towards serving our ordinary goals, life, liberty, sustenance of self and family. The organization of society, I said above, is judged not on its inherent form, but instrumentally. But now we can add that what this organization is instrumental to concerns the very basic conditions of existence as free agents, rather than the excellence of virtue (166).

Nevertheless, the primary good is the good of the order of the whole. As St Thomas teaches, that which God primarily intends in the cosmos is order of the whole, as this best reflects his glory; similarly, the primary end of political society, to which the virtue of its individual members are ordered, is the common good of the order of the whole, since it more perfectly reflects the cosmic order. The order of the whole society is a common good, and as such has primacy over the private good of  individuals.

This is how one has to understand the teaching against popular sovereignty in Diuturnum and Notre Charge: the common good approaches more to the divine good and is more intimately ordered to it than the private good, and thus the rulers, who have charge of it, must receive their authority from above rather than below.

In contrast the modern ideal of order, being purely instrumental, naturally leads to an idea of popular sovereignty, in which the people delegate just as much authority to the state as is necessary for it to help them preserve their life, liberty and, property.

But what Taylor shows is that the full doctrine of popular sovereignty did not enter the “social imaginary” of the West till long after the new ideal of order had essentially established itself. The new ideal of order influenced the formation of new modes of social practice, but it also “colonized” older forms of legitimacy, such as the idea of “the ancient law of a people,” and transformed them. Taylor sees the American Revolution as a key moment where such a transformation leads to the entry of popular sovereignty into the social imaginary of the West:

The United States is a case in point. The reigning notions of legitimacy in Britain and America, the ones which fired the English CivilWar, for instance, as well as the beginnings of the Colonies’ rebellion, were basically backward-looking. They turned around the idea of an “ancient constitution”, an order based on law holding “since time out of mind”, in which Parliament had its rightful place beside the King. This was typical of one of the most widespread pre-modern understandings of order, which referred back to a “time of origins” (Eliade’s phrase), which was not in ordinary time.

This older idea emerges from the American Revolution transformed into a fullfledged foundation in popular sovereignty, whereby the U.S. constitution is put in the mouth of “We, the people”. This was preceded by an appeal to the idealized order of Natural Law, in the invocation of “truths held self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. The transition was the easier, because what was understood as the traditional law gave an important place to elected assemblies and their consent to taxation. All that was needed was to shift the balance in these so as to make elections the only source of legitimate power.

But what has to take place for this change to come off is a transformed social imaginary, in which the idea of foundation is taken out of the mythical early time, and seen as something that people can do today. In other words, it becomes something that can be brought about by collective action in contemporary, purely secular time. (197)

The American Revolution is in a sense the watershed. It was undertaken in a backward-looking spirit, in the sense that the colonists were fighting for their established rights as Englishmen. Moreover they were fighting under their established colonial legislatures, associated in a Congress. But out of the whole process emerges the crucial fiction of “we, the people”, into whose mouth the declaration of the new constitution is placed. (208)

I think I am now in a position to spell out why the American political order is indeed “at its core antithetical to the Catholic Faith” (and of course something like this holds for all Western democracies). The antithesis is that between what De Koninck calls “personalism” and true Christianity; between the “love of self to the contempt of God” and the love of God in his super-abundant communicability and the of that order which is the manifestation of God’s glory outside himself. It is the antithesis between Lucifer and Christ. It is not a question of this or that article of the Constitution contradicting some of the more time-bound teachings of Leo XIII, but rather of the basic order which is engraved into the modern social imaginary and embodied in the very material relations of modern democracy and capitalist economy contradicting the central teachings of the Christian faith:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death. (Phil 2:4-8)

Venuleius ends his post with an attack on the practical consequences (or lack thereof) taken by critics of modern political order:

when we’re discussing the traditionalist critique of America, what we’re largely looking at is a band of moderately informed miscreants who have decided to trade in their apparently awful status as American citizens for pathetic longings for a time which probably never existed. Nay, I take (part of) that back. The funny thing is that they haven’t traded in their status as American citizens because no matter how much they might want to tell you otherwise, they enjoy ye olde iPad as much as the next guy with usuriously-generated disposable income. And once you put that in perspective, their “critique” starts to take on an unmistakable appearance of silliness, if not childishness.

Here I think Venuleius has a point. There certainly is a contradiction between condemning the political order in which we live in theory and supporting it in practice. What we need is the kind of revolutionary praxis envisioned by Alasdair MacInyre at the end of After Virtue. And I think there are some “trads” who are attempting something like this — for instance the John Senior disciples who are beginning to build a local “distributist” economy around the Abbey of Clear Creek in Oklahoma.

22 thoughts on “Against the American Revolution

  1. These are good remarks; something to chew on, I think. What I will say is that I am not anti-Ferrara; I just find that his recent choice to use “Americanism” as his whipping post to be more than a bit absurd.

    As a preliminary matter, I suppose I am perplexed at how the Constitution per se leads to the problematic political order you discuss here. I won’t deny for an instant that the American Republic is “modern” and that its connection with pre-modern political thought is tenuous at points (though there is some substance there), but none of that is to say that the Constitution mandates an individualistic, de-personalized polity. There are other forces at work over-and-above what a generally worded, compromised political document has to say about the division of federal and state responsibilities. Maybe liberal democracy (even in a Republican form with an allegedly fixed body of rights attached) is per se bad, but to hold that ignores the latitude the document affords to a much different conception of the political-social “good” than what we have today.

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  2. Hello,

    I comment on V’s blog and am intimately familiar with the Distributist movement. I could say a lot, as a paleo-libertarian traditionalist who believes that not every American principle is at odds with Catholic political thought, but I will limit myself to comments on this closing point you made:

    “There certainly is a contradiction between condemning the political order in which we live in theory and supporting it in practice. What we need is the kind of revolutionary praxis envisioned by Alasdair MacInyre at the end of After Virtue. And I think there are some “trads” who are attempting something like this — for instance the John Senior disciples who are beginning to build a local “distributist” economy around the Abbey of Clear Creek in Oklahoma.”

    The building of a “local distributist economy” is in and of itself a project that is endorsed, sanctioned, blessed, and arguably made possible in the first place by the very political order that it is supposed to oppose. If there really were some sort of “Americanism” that must be uniformly imposed on all, who would be allowed to build a Catholic community like this? In how many other countries would a group of people just be allowed to acquire property and build a community somewhere that reflects their religious values? How many countries would at least make it more difficult?

    Leo XIII repeatedly praised the United States for protecting the rights of the Church. Other popes had similar praise to offer. While there may be aspects of American political thought that do not align with traditional Catholic political thought, there is hardly anything in American political practice that opposes anything in Catholic practice. We are not mandated by CST to establish a Catholic state; we are mandated to spread the Gospel and embody its values in the world. Insofar as American political thought does not oppose, on principle, that mandate, what is the source of all this horrible tension?

    Is it the non-Catholic culture we live in? Only we can change that. This or that law? We can change those. And in what country, I would like to know, do Catholics necessarily have it better?

    These are all things worth thinking about.

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  3. @Venuleius: I partly agree with you. I don’t think that a democratic-republican form of government must of necessity exclude a proper ordering toward the common good. Nor do I think that the mechanics of the division of power between states and the federal government mandated by the Constitution, taken by themselves, would be enough to exclude such an order. But I would see the Constitution as an important element in a larger project which, taken as a whole, does exclude such an order. One way of coming at this is through the idea of popular sovereignty. If one reads the Constitution in isolation from its historical context, I suppose one can read the “We the people…” bit in another way, but I think it more reasonable to read it in context including the context of the Declaration of Independence. Taylor argues that the Constitution is a key move in engraving the idea of popular sovereignty into the “social imaginary” (understood as the common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.) Popular sovereignty is of course a key element of the instrumental ideal of political order, and serves to cement into society. If “the people” could see themselves as coming together to establish political authority, then it was because they already saw the point of political authority as being the securing of their individual rights (as the Declaration has it). But then it is impossible to see the common good of political community the way it was seen by Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, and St Thomas, as by nature prior to and superior to the good of individuals, as a participation in a cosmic order which is ordered to “the divine good.” Athenian democracy and the Roman republic had their problems, but at least they generally saw that politics had something to do with realizing an order which had something to do with “the gods.”

    @Joe Hargrave: I’ll readily admit that the American order is a lot better than the anti-clerical regimes stemming from the French Revolution. But it would be a mistake to see it as a mere neutral, empty political form that allows any content we want. David Schindler calls this the “con game of liberalism”; it claims to be value neutral, but in fact the very presumption that such an empty form is possible already embodies a false, Enlightenment view of human nature.  The form of our political and economic life has embedded in it a view of man as an autonomous, “buffered” self, who associates with others through contracts for mutual benefit. Sure, there is no law that says we have to see things that way, but political community is naturally prior to individuals and forms them after its own image. A lot of what we take to be simply the self-evident “way things are” is in fact the contingent way in which our society has been formed by the ideology of Enlightenment. Here’s another quote pasted from Taylor’s book:

    Any new practice or institution has obviously “material” conditions. Modern capitalism could not have arisen without a thriving set of commercial practices—trade, money, banks, bookkeeping methods, and so on. But these from another point of view pose conditions in the realm of “ideas”. People have to share certain understandings of how they can function with others, and what the norms are, if they are to engage in these practices. We fail to notice this, because we take it for granted. Or we assume, like Adam Smith, that people always had a propensity to “truck and barter”,2 and just may have lacked some skills, or detailed knowledge of certain procedures, to engage in these activities.
    But if we were thrown back into gift-exchange societies, of the kind that Marcel Mauss writes about,3 we would see that we had the greatest difficulty in explaining our “trade”, which might even appear something monstrous and insulting to them—for instance, if we immediately returned a money equivalent of their gift; or worse, handed it back, and asked for something more. (p. 213)

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    • I apologize that it has taken me so many days to get back to this. but I started teaching again last week, so that’s occupied a great deal of time.

      On your mention, I picked up a copy of Taylor’s book. I started in on a library copy when it first showed up in late 2007, but I was too distracted at the time to deal with it. The virtue of owning my own copy is that I can make notes and spill coffee (or beer) on it without compunction.

      The “We the people…” language of the Constitutional Preamble is amongst the strangest and most problematic language of the entire document from a historical perspective. It has certainly caused an endless series of debates in the legal literature over its import and meaning, particularly as an interpretive device. There are now “Originalists,” for instance, who believe the Preamble offers the hermeneutical key to the entire document, while others write it off as a rhetorical flourish that was never meant to embody anything. And then there are positions like the one you take, where the Preamble and/or the entire structure of the document essentially incorporates the Declaration of Independence. For my part, I have remained agnostic on the issue, mainly due to the conflicts in the historical record and, as a legal matter, the fact the Preamble has never proven dispositive in any case (at least as far as I am aware).

      My argument is not that the Constitution aligns in any exact or perfect way with pre-modern political thought, only that it has some roots in that thought. Moreover, even Aristotle recognized that there was no “universal formula” for constitutions. I will add, though, that the classic conception of political society is not ruled out by the Constitution — but other forces have conspired to almost ensure that such a conception is no longer (if it ever was) central to our political environment.

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  4. “the very presumption that such an empty form is possible already embodies a false, Enlightenment view of human nature. ”

    Yes!

    I came across a quote on someone’s FB page a couple of years ago.

    “I don’t think we should give up our values to find common ground. Then it’s not common ground, it’s their ground and we’re just standing on it.”
    (Christopher Shinn, “Now or Later”)

    [Usefully, for polemic and PR purposes, it seems (Wikipedia says) that Christopher Shinn is some kind of big name in the gay playwriting scene.]

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  5. Sanc,

    “But it would be a mistake to see it as a mere neutral, empty political form that allows any content we want.”

    Maybe so, but at the same time, we shouldn’t over-estimate the “radicalism” of the American Revolution or its impact on the greater society that had come into existence during the colonial era. Long before the era of the 14th amendment, “incorporation”, and the grossly expanded powers of the judiciary, it was perfectly legal for states and local communities to establish “theocracies.” If the Amish and similar groups were more evangelistic and less isolationist, the whole country might be Amish now. Catholics could have had similar communities and they did – and the extent to which America is now a secular, or at least non-Catholic social order has as much if not much more to do with the Protestantism of the overwhelming majority of its people than it does the deism or rationalism of the authors of the federal Constitution.

    One must also ask, where was the condemnation of the Papacy? As far as I can tell, the only reaction of Pope Pius VI to the American Revolution was to figure out an expedient means for American Catholics to establish a local see. If there is some document in which the principles of the American founding are condemned, I haven’t seen it.

    “The form of our political and economic life has embedded in it a view of man as an autonomous, “buffered” self, who associates with others through contracts for mutual benefit.”

    Was there a point in history, or let us say, the history of Christendom, in which this was not the case? In my studies, the development of a “contract” based commercial economy as we might roughly recognize it today really began in medieval Italy. Protestants, Marxists, and now Distributists all want to claim that capitalism – for better or for worse – began with Protestantism. I would say that depending on how one understands capitalism, it began much sooner than that.

    ” A lot of what we take to be simply the self-evident “way things are” is in fact the contingent way in which our society has been formed by the ideology of Enlightenment. ”

    This may be true, but there is no going back. It is technology more than ideas that is responsible for the condition of society, and which in fact make certain ideas possible, or at least possible to manifest in the world. So a certain measure of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism is simply always going to be a fact of life. In a society that respects private property and free exchange, these forces will not smother the Church or Catholic society – at least, they don’t have to, if we remain steadfast, and we can. The only other option appears to be some version of secular authoritarianism. That is to say, if some ideological regime is going to rule society, it isn’t going to be Christianity. We can either come as close to the “neutral” point as possible through the early American ideas of federalism, state’s rights, local autonomy, etc. or we succumb to a militantly secular Leviathan.

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    • Joe Hargrave,

      The form of our political and economic life has embedded in it a view of man as an autonomous, “buffered” self, who associates with others through contracts for mutual benefit.” Was there a point in history, or let us say, the history of Christendom, in which this was not the case?

      Well, certainly Christendom was never a Maussian gift-society, but there is a big transformation that takes place in the 17th and 18th centuries. As you say, a lot of this depends on definitions. Even if you have a lot of proto-capitalist commercial activity in the Middle Ages, “the economy” as “we” tend to think of it nowadays doesn’t come about till the 17th century. (Take a look at ch. 4 of Taylor) And that is just one element in what I’m talking about. The others include what Taylor calls a “direct access society.” Again a quote from Taylor:

      modern social imaginaries… present society in its dominant, enframing structure, not as a network of personal relations of lordship, fealty, and tenure, but rather as a categorical, egalitarian order, in which we are all related in the same direct-access way to the society, which itself must be understood also objectively, as well as being the product of our coming together. Modern society is a united we/they of similar units, equal citizens; something utterly different from a tissue of feudal relations. The transition from one to the other was going on in the eighteenth century, and was taking place slowly… (p. 281)

      Then you write: …but there is no going back. It is technology more than ideas that is responsible for the condition of society, and which in fact make certain ideas possible, or at least possible to manifest in the world.

      Well, that is why I invoked MacIntyre, who is very much aware of the Marxist insights into the relations between ideas and technology, and therefore sees our only hope in a kind of “revolutionary Aristotelian” praxis. Here is the famous last bit of After Virtue:

      It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the Epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman Imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the Imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead- often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If this account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different- St. Benedict.

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  8. I wish we could have some long discussions about this in person. Maybe someday.

    Are you aware of the debate over “popular sovereignty” that Lincoln had with Douglas in their famed debates? I think that sheds light on what the concept means in America (which certainly includes a tension between democracy simply speaking and something else entirely). Odd that our most famous President specifically rejected the notion of popular soveriegnty in the modern sense, don’t you think?

    Anyhow, on the two points:

    “Taylor identifies two related types of pre-modern moral/political order. The first is the conception of “the Law of a people;” a law which the people did not give itself, but which was established in a remote “sacred time” by a quasi super human law giver; a law which constitutes the people as people (p. 163).”

    The American Revolution appealed to both elements: tradition, insofar as they thought they had legal rights as Englishman from time immemorial but also as based in their very being insofar as they were created by God. In fact, for all the hand wringing that occurs in various circles isn’t this the ultimate anti-modern appeal? An appeal to the very nature of man that depends upon his openness to and creation by something higher? Isn’t this the precise difference between the American Revolution and the French? One overturned tradition and any appeal to what is higher than man…the other was based on an appeal to something higher than man as well as tradition, and in fact defined man as created by something higher than him. And the traditional common law was simply taken as given from the English, and used without a break.

    But as a matter of fact, when it comes to Taylor, isn’t this notion also dropped insofar is it is taken to an extreme it is simply false? Government doesn’t grow on trees, as it were. It is, in fact, the highest thing that people are involved in making besides, perhaps, children. Government is not simply organic, because we have reason. And nor do they come from the divine, unless perhaps one is talking about Moses, etc. An educated people will see that even the neat picture Coke drew of the English law wasn’t quite true, factually speaking. An educated people will realize that the positive law, even that which constitutes the regime, doesn’t come from a sacred cave in which shamans spoke to the gods. Etc. But dropping this notion does not mean one drops the role of tradition, or the democracy of the dead as GKC put it.

    Note that they made it rather difficult to change the Constitution, and immediately sought to deify it. (Jefferson did once privately float the insane idea that each generation ratify and change it, but Madison and the rest thought this nuts). And people DID think that something providential had happened. A people had selected an elite group of men to create a constitution in line with a long tradition of governance that also was formed with what was argued to be universal principles of human nature and the natural law in mind. If it was just what was in the now that mattered, and we had NONE of what he speaks of, why is the Constitution still so revered and after worlds at war still fairly unaltered? Few in American politics get far speaking ill of the Constitution or our political traditions.

    “The second is the one which St. Thomas uses: the notion of a hierarchy of society which corresponds to the hierarchy of the cosmos. In fact, the political hierarchy is part of the cosmic hierarchy. This hierarchy is understood through Platonic or Aristotelian notions of form as something which is itself at work in reality – like the form of an organism – deviations from which turn reality against itself. Thus disorder in the political realm is reflected by disorder in other parts of the cosmos. Taylor refers to Macbeth 2.4, where owls, horses and the even the very sunlight are plunged into disorder by the murder of Duncan.”

    This is fine as far as it goes, but clearly there are some problems here, no? Again, we don’t really think ourselves that Macbeth’s presentation is actually and fully true, do we? Is Plato’s presentation meant to be taken literally in the Republic? Taylor admits it is not, or at least that is not the point. Which is why Plato’s Laws, in which he actually lays forth the city in potential practice, is a very different book.

    But let’s take nature. This organism you speak of…how does that work in nature? We keep discovering how complex this is, in the sense that there are so many parts and they all seem to work together in ways that baffle us. In fact, in nature we find that the order is often NOT led from the top, consiously speaking. We find instead instinct and a collaboration of individuals in ways that surprise us, with no obvious planning leader present. And is the universe not affected by the fall? Regardless, men are. So what this hierarchy is and ought to be is certainly something that is in dispute.

    “Thus individual perfection, “the highest virtue” is something that the members of the polis receive from the city.”

    For pagans, yes. But not for Christians. Or for Aristotle, who makes a distinction between the good man and the good citizen. Only in the perfect regime are they the same. And the perfect regime is not possible to achieve with strictly human governance and institutions, lest we become moderns in the attempt, eh?

    The problem is that the very notion of human nature in light of Christianity seems to run up against the idea of ordering human beings politically into unalterable orders or classes, especially when anyone other than God is doing the ordering. The order must serve the common good, after all. So the order is not the point. It is the means to the common good. The Church gave lip service at times and in other times more than such to the notion that the people really do need to accept the King even if they don’t choose him (and we don’t have recognized prophets of the Lord these days), but it was easy to let this slide a bit when entire societies assumed that large sections of the population were simply going to have to farm the land or whatever. The only reason to ascribe to such a notion is out of prudential concern for the circumstances. Unless one thinks we really can line up the populace and tell everyone what their vocation is…or, even worse, attempt to do this for bloodlines.

    In any event, the Constitution was created because of a recognition that the democratic principle was running amuck in the states. The Federalists often use the word “licentiousness” in their defense of a strong national government. Their idea of representation, for instance, was that the representative, once chosen, ought to deliberate for the sake of the public good. In fact, this contradicts the democratic principle, which in its pure form would have people chosen at random to rule…election actually begs the question of who OUGHT to rule, which in turn created the opportunity for a standard of some excellence. They wished as much as possible to create a system in which a natural aristocracy would emerge and rule. The problem is always who determines who rules, and why. There is no system in which one guarantees the wise rule. In the American the goal of the Constitution (explicitly so, in its supporters words) is to mitigate and guide against majority rule that would run counter to the common good. Just as anyone constructing a kingdom would want to do what one can institutionally and otherwise to prevent the rule of a bad man, or bad decisions on the part of a king. Etc.

    In other words, the notion of hierarchy and order was not per se rejected by the American founding. The different kinds of men needed for different kinds of rule was well known and built into the system. One can actually see this in practice: a senator is a very different cat than a member of the House, etc. And despite the word democracy, the representation that actually goes on here is not random. To get elected for a federal office, you usually aren’t your average citizen. And that’s by design.

    Modern order “is directed towards serving our ordinary goals, life, liberty, sustenance of self and family. The organization of society, I said above, is judged not on its inherent form, but instrumentally. But now we can add that what this organization is instrumental to concerns the very basic conditions of existence as free agents, rather than the excellence of virtue (166).”

    Odd to leave out the “pursuit of happiness” or “justice” as the American founders have it, but so be it. Again, the order of society is always instrumental. To the common good. And haven’t we succeeded some in achieving those ordinary goals much better than societies in the past? And aren’t they prerequisite to virtue? Doesn’t Christianity hold that the highest community is NOT actually the polis? Doesn’t it hold that the law condemns, but cannot justify and bring about the virtue it aims at? Yet why did the early American regime until today have so many laws specifically concerning personal morality if all this is true?

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  9. “The basic normative principle is, indeed, that the members of society serve each other’s needs, help each other. In this way, they complement each other. ”

    “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death.” (Phil 2:4-8)

    Right on.

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  10. “The antithesis is that between what De Koninck calls ‘personalism’ and true Christianity; between the ‘love of self to the contempt of God’ and the love of God in his super-abundant communicability and the of that order which is the manifestation of God’s glory outside himself.”

    This only works if you know what the order which is God’s manifestation of glory outside himself is and ought to be when it comes to the governance of human beings on earth. We know more of what this is not, and that’s what is safer to argue from. Certainly secular liberalism today is a con game and not compatible with the Catholic faith. But it is also a disputes question and a controversial phrase. Which begs the question…why is it so disputed and reviled in a place like America, even still?

    Anyhow, do you know what the manifestation of God’s glory outside himself is in the abstract, or as it is heaven? Then you must apply it in a way that accounts for the variations of prudence in the realm of political philosophy in such a way as to account for human nature and the separate institution of the Church. That’s a tall order! Who is going to divide up entire “orders” of men but God?

    When Aristotle says that the polis is the highest, even he doesn’t mean it. For him philosophy and religion merge and that community within the polis is really the highest. We add the Church to all this, and Christ shocks the apostles by separating Church and state repeatedly. It’s complicated.

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  11. Matt, you make some excellent points here. Thanks v. much. On some points I agree with you, on others I disagree, and others I have to chew on a bit more.

    There are distinct advantages to discussing this in writing as it gives us more time to think. I shall try to do a series of posts on this.

    I remember being pleasantly surprised by Lincoln’s take on popular sovereignty in the L-D debates, but I don’t remember the details v. well.

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  14. Have you or Taylor heard of a Folksgemot or a hundred as a unit of government? The word “thing” meant in old Norse what we would call a town meeting, albeit the Norse were slave-owners, and the slaves were not citizens.
    Thomas: “if the Prince ceases to pursue the common good he ceases to be the Prince.” Democracy is law, and both are the discussion of what the common good means in the case at point.
    I was down at the registry of deeds here in Portland, ME, today and came across the deed in which God gave Palestine to the Jews in perpetuity.
    “This is how one has to understand the teaching against popular sovereignty in Diuturnum and Notre Charge: the common good approaches more to the divine good and is more intimately ordered to it than the private good, and thus the rulers, who have charge of it, must receive their authority from above rather than below.”
    You compare the relationship between democracy and the church to that between Christ and Lucifer, so I suppose you endorse the “teaching”.
    I don’t see why the Palestinians don’t realize what the law is and just accept it. Of course I’m lying when I say I saw the document, but as a person of authority God expects me to throw my weight around for the sake of the little people. God and I understand each other perfectly on this score.
    Okay. Here is a serious response. How can the Catholic Church scrape together perhaps a bit of authority, viz., that people actually respect? It is to bring Thomas out of Plato’s cave, or actually to put him in it, where he always was. The cave stands for the human imagination, in which all knowledge occurs. When Thomas uses a very big word like “substance”, and defines it as a suppositum or subsisting thing, we should not look up in the sky for where this exists, but in the imagination in which all knowledge occurs (when the agent intellect abstracts the essence from the sensory image and then conversio ad phantasma, meanwhile returning to itself, three acts which Rahner shows are all the same act, since “there is no knowledge without the phantasm”). A substance is a big idea in one’s imagination. One marks it to remember. Less important ideas are deemed “accidents” (the Greek term used by Aristotle means “stand with your feet together”–talk about feet of clay). The whole business of essence and accidents is a scandal to the Church until it’s remembered that we’re talking about keeping track in our memories/expectations of where we supposedly (!) learned what goes into them: mental housekeeping. The main folders are essences and the subfolders are accidents. It’s not like Jake and Jack differ only in accidents like Jake is murdering Jack as we speak. That whole high-and-hazy aspect of Catholic authority is nothing but nothing.
    So, what goes on outside the imagination? Who knows for sure. As Rahner says, we (meaning I) have no place to stand on from which to verify anything. The process of civil law is the way to deal with that extreme limit on human intelligence: the fact that intelligence cannot prove itself even to itself, much less to little Jeffy here. Such is the wonder and responsibility of being human. So I take two claims from Thomas, God is being and the highest knowledge of God is the tanquam ignotum, as if unknown, to define perception as the mental engagement with a happening, betokened as such (as opposed to wishful thinking, which includes fears as well as desires) by the sense of uncanniness. I look at my fingers typing and wonder how it happens that I am here, for example. Delusions are always too damned convenient.

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    • Charles De Koninck has a brilliant little essay on the sense of touch that is very relevant here. All human thought depends in some way on phantasms, but we are to ready to take phantasms as visual images. “Sometimes I have wondered whether Western culture turned into chimney-smoke because of a neglected sense of touch.” Check it out: http://www.goodcatholicbooks.org/dekoninck/certitude/sedeo-ergo-sum.html As De Koninck points out, this has major consequences for political thought.

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      • Of course, but none of that “depends in some way”. A key word here is “knowledge”. What about day-dreaming? Prayer? Even the actual, proper definition of emotion (making it just what it sounds like, a motion away): these are other things we can do aside from knowing something, albeit each of them results in a knowable act. I set against all this heavenly freedom and murkiness the civil law, and make this a political job, precisely because politics can also give us the opposite, party-line-ism, where everything is someone else’s fault, nobody knows anything for sure, and violence reigns supreme. “Be reasonable: do it my way”, but also, “If I could tell you what my way was, that would put me and you on the same page in some way, and neither of us would like that much responsibility, right?” Party-line-ism can occupy precisely the same institutions, even the same words, as a “system of ordered liberty”, and the only thing missing is sincerity–and of course, the whole operation comes to a crashing catastrophic end because everybody assumed someone else was actually paying attention and taking responsibility. But I suppose, the closer we come to such a state, the more people decide they’d better get back in the game. Pick a number, and live or die.
        Let me mention something I just read of recreational interest. Lambert in Self-Knowledge in Thomas Aquinas briefly mentions (in the bit I’ve read on-line) the 500 BCE Indian doctrine (in the Upanishads) that the self (the Atman) is identical with the essence of the universe, and when one attains this awareness one has salvation. Now Rahner, in Spirit in the World, also finds in Thomas that “the soul is in some way everything” so that, whatever one knows in a sensible object via the sensible image, one knows as one’s soul. It seems to me that only that part of one’s soul is “in act” that is precisely that sensed and imagined thing, so one is that thing. The root doctrine is that knowing is being, and, pushed on by Rahner’s sequel, Hearers of the Word, it becomes very hard not to agree with this doctrine, given that we know materially and thus, it seems, “one thing at a time” while God is everything always and more, and calls us into being this instant. “Send forth thy word and we shall be created.” The link is as I said at first: when we find being in something, we find God, and conversely, we don’t find being in something if we reject God. In the latter case, it is ourselves that we rule out of order. Closing pun: alienation nation. Ripe for the reign of the inane party line.
        Look, ma, I’m a poet.

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